Three years ago, Kikkan Randall won her first World Cup race. This was when many around the world could hardly imagine an American winning a World Cup event in cross-country skiing, and for good reason. An American hadn't done much of note since Bill Koch, and that went way back to the early 1980s. So Randall winning -- that was a really, really big deal. Randall won again this past weekend.
The reality is that Randall, 28, of Anchorage, Alaska, is now good enough that she's capable of winning anytime she lines it up. She's consistent enough that her weekend victory shot her to the top of the World Cup sprints points standings.
Perhaps the most profound sign of such progress is the way she talks about it all. She said Monday on the telephone, matter-of-factly, "For me, it has been a steady progression."
Cross-country skiing is, like biathlon and Nordic combined, one of those endeavors that takes time, funding and faith to get results.
At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, it all came together for the Nordic combined program. Fourteen years after the decision to go all-in, the U.S. won four Olympic medals.
The biathlon program didn't win any medals in Vancouver -- but all signs are pointing in the right direction. For a time last season, Tim Burke wore the yellow jersey emblematic of the tour's points leader. This year, Susan Dunklee has steadily been moving along in the standings.
Similarly, the U.S. cross-country ski team didn't win any Vancouver medals.
But -- Vancouver was hardly a failure for the program or for Kikkan Randall.
The 2010 Games were her third.
In Salt Lake City, her first Games, she finished 44th in the sprint. In Torino, ninth. In Vancouver, eighth.
Then again, by way of explanation, the 2010 Olympic sprint used the classical style of cross-country skiing; Randall's best results have come using the freestyle, or skate, form.
So to finish eighth -- that was, as Kikkan put it, "an incredible breakthrough."
During the 2009 season, she took silver in the freestyle sprint race at the world championships.
Before this past weekend she already had been on the podium twice this season. Then, back in Liberec, the Czech Republic, on the same course where she won the 2009 world championships silver, she held off Hanna Falk of Sweden and Celine Brun-Lie of Norway for the win.
During that 2009 race, it snowed. This past weekend, it rained and they had to salt the course.
In 2009, Randall's strategy was to lead from the front. This time around, she said she sat back just a little bit.
This is how an experienced pro does it -- in different conditions and with different strategies.
The difference, of course, is that now we are talking about an American.
It takes a long time to get there. But Americans can get there, too.
"This is something I had in the back of my mind 10 years ago when I seriously committed to being a full-time ski racer," she said. "I just had this feeling I could do it. It was just an inkling. To now be 10 years forward and be in this position, it's incredible. It literally is the realization of a dream."